Magnetic braking, ambipolar diffusion, cloud cores, and star formation: Natural length scales and protostellar masses

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Magnetic braking is essential for cloud contraction and star formation. Ambipolar diffusion is unavoidable in self-gravitating, magnetic clouds and leads to single-stage (as opposed to hierarchical) fragmentation (or core formation) and protostar formation. Magnetic forces dominate thermal-pressure and centrifugal forces over scales comparable to molecular cloud radii. Magnetic support of molecular clouds and the imperfect collisional coupling between charged and neutral particles introduce a critical magnetic length scale (λ = 0.62υAτff) and an Alfvén length scale (λA = πAυA τni), respectively, in the problem which together with a critical thermal length scale (λT,cr = 1.09Caτff) explain naturally the formation of fragments (or cores) in otherwise quiescent clouds and determine, the sizes and masses of these fragments during the subsequent stages of contraction. (The quantity υA is the Alfvén speed, τni the mean neutral-ion collision time, Ca the adiabatic speed of sound, and τff the free-fall time scale.) Numerical calculations based on new adaptive-grid techniques follow the formation of fragments by ambipolar diffusion and their subsequent collapse up to an enhancement in central density above its initial equilibrium value by a factor ≃106 with excellent spatial resolution. The results confirm the existence and relevance of the three length scales and extend the analytical understanding of fragmentation and star formation derived from them. The ultimately bimodal opposition to gravity (by magnetic forces in the envelope and by thermal-pressure forces in the core) introduces a break in the slope of the log ρn-log r profile. The relation Bc ∞ ρcκ between the magnetic field strength and the gas density in cloud cores holds with κ= 0.4-0.5 even in the presence of ambipolar diffusion up to densities ≃109 cm-3 for a wide variety of clouds. The value κ ≃ 1/2 is fairly typical. At the late stages of evolution, for example, at a central density of about 3 × 108 cm-3, a typical core is relatively uniform, contains 0.1 M and a magnetic field ≃3mG, and is surrounded by a spatially rapidly decreasing, highly nonspherical (disklike) density distribution. The amount of mass available for accretion onto the compact core is limited by magnetic forces, and is typically ∼1 M. These results are built into the detailed scenario for star formation described recently elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)169-186
Number of pages18
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 20 1991


  • Diffusion
  • Hydromagnetics
  • Interstellar: magnetic fields
  • Interstellar: matter
  • Plasmas
  • Stars: formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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